Sleep is something I’ve struggled with for a long time. I fall asleep easily, but so many times I wake up at 2-3 am, and can’t go back to sleep. Many accidental discoveries later, it’s no longer a problem.
Exercise regularly: Quite by accident, I stumbled onto something we are all peripherally aware of, but discount: exercise really improves sleep. My journey to better sleep through exercise was certainly not intentional and went like this: I bought an iPhone to take better pictures. Then I bought an Apple watch to find that iPhone. Getting that watch had unexpectedly powerful effects. I started tracking my daily exercise and sharing my fitness data with a friend (see how here), motivating me to exercise more. The first thing I noticed off the bat, when I walked 1.5 miles in a single stretch in a day, my nighttime awakenings were dropping off steeply. So many nights, I’d just sleep straight through and it felt wonderful.
Watch what you eat: In my mid-30s, my body kindly decided to make me intolerant to several foods. My food intolerances are expressed in any number of delightful ways. These include canker sores, skin eruptions, tummy upsets if I have a huge amount of the allergen, and mainly, reflux (and tight neck muscles secondary to reflux). If I eat the wrong thing or have food too oily or spicy, I am guaranteed to wake up in the middle of the night with reflux. Recognizing and avoiding food triggers is not as straightforward or foolproof as one might think. You may have subtle food intolerances you have not picked up on. Recognizing them involves paying attention to your body: keep a food diary and optionally run a food allergy panel, and correlate your findings. It’s a lot, but it’s worth the effort! Eating early and practicing intermittent fasting (at least 12 hours with no food) also helps a lot.
Sleep at the right time: I noticed that around 9.30 pm, I got powerfully sleepy. If I slept when my body told me to sleep, the quality & duration of sleep automatically improved. If I pushed sleep to 11:30 pm or midnight, the sleep quality would likely suffer. This is something so woefully clear to all of us, but still, something ignored.
But despite doing all these things, I may still wake up in the middle of the night. Nothing is bulletproof after all. Or there are times when some or all of these habits fall by the wayside. Then what? I tried two new things: listening to guided meditation, yoga nidra, and ASMR, all of which have been godsends, but the Yoga Nidra (by Ally Boothroyd) is the clear winner.
First, if you don’t have AirPods or any other wireless headphones, I highly recommend buying some. AirPods are often on sale on Amazon for only $99-$174. I bought these to specifically try guided meditations for sleep.
Guided sleep meditations are available from any number of creators. All of them work on a common principle: they help lull you to sleep by making you focus on your breathing, and then deliberately focus on relaxing different parts of your body. I’ve tried many different artists – my favorite artist is Laurie Ostrowski Fenton. Her arrangements are not perfect. But she is successful because her voice is incredibly calming, and her buildup is excellent. She goes from speaking softly to whispering. As I cover in the next section, whispering is somewhat effective at putting me to sleep. I’d probably score this at 70%.
Then I discovered Yoga Nidras – these are a simplified form of an ancient tantric relaxation technique and have been unsurpassed in getting me to relax. My absolute favorite (I score this as being 95% effective in putting me to sleep). which I use every night now, is this 2-hour offering by Ally Boothroyd. You can also download an ad-free version on her website, and it’s the best 12 bucks I ever spent!
Pro-tip: Adjust the volume to be very low for these to be effective.
What is ASMR, you ask? I was first introduced to it through a science podcast that turned out to be a somewhat life-altering listen. ASMR stands for Autonomous sensory meridian response and is commonly triggered by specific auditory or audio-visual stimuli. ASMR first was introduced around 2007, and has exploded since. There are around 13 million ASMR videos on YouTube as of 2018 (As per Wikipedia), and they have been viewed billions of times – the podcast said around 80 billion (!!), but I’m quoting from memory.
It can be people softly speaking or whispering, and doing mundane repetitive things like folding clothes, turning the pages of a book, tapping on a mic, brushing a mic, etc. ASMR can induce a tingling sensation, a sense of euphoria, and/or sleepiness. Not everyone will experience ASMR, but a big subset of people do. I don’t experience tingles or euphoria, but then I have not tried watching an ASMR video, only tried listening to audio. Only one type of ASMR (whispering, not soft-speaking) works for me, and it makes me sleep. Always. Like 100% of the time. It’s sleep magic for my brain. When I realized whispering has this effect on me, it also clicked why only some sleep meditations work on me – the good ones have people whispering in the end.
I’ve tried a few ASMR stations on YouTube and on Apple Podcasts. If ASMR whispering works for you, it will not matter that much what they whisper – it’s the intonation that mysteriously works on your brain. The YouTube offerings did not wow me much – this one was the most successful for me.
But I have a brain that craves complexity. The ASMR station (Blue Skies by Bluemind) I found on Apple Podcasts delivered on that complexity, and I love the content. The creator has a very soothing voice, but more than that, what they have to say is interesting in itself. This is a great whispered episode on the need for rest to start with. This ASMR station has sent me to sleep dozens of times with many different podcasts (you’ll need the variety). There is an eclectic compilation, but it’s only the whispered (and not soft-spoken/other sound-creating) content that sent me straight to sleep. I’d probably score ASMRs by this artist as being about 80% effective.
I also tried ASMR for my kid one day she could not sleep, and it knocked her out! I tried a BlueMind ASMR that would be suitable for kids (lots of the episodes totally are not). Overall, from this station, these episodes are child-suitable:
Jade Roller for sleep
On Steven Universe Future – Part 1
On Steven Universe Future -Part 2
There is also a “Raya and the Last Dragon” episode, but that one has chip eating. I’m afraid that sound will trigger my misophonia, so I’ve never tried it.
You can loop the episodes using the “play next” and “play last” features, and even keep it on all night if needed.
As with guided meditation, you don’t have to stick with the choices I have suggested – lots of different options out there. Do a search for “ASMR whispering for sleep” and see what comes up if you want to check out other options. Note that most of the other choices out there were too short.
So here you have it. It’s a world chock full of resources out there, and lots of options to make you sleep with zero medication involved!